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  • rmacculloch

Isn't being able to distinguish "disinformation" from "opinion" the exception rather than the rule?

Yesterday Stuff News reported on a Kiwi-based Centre's "Disinformation Project", which has been "monitoring misinformation & disinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccine since February 2020". Stuff ran the headline, "It's a hellscape: The age of misinformation is here - can government close the rabbit hole? " The Centre's Working Paper on the issue (see below) says, "The ecologies & spread of mis- and disinformation point to a broader threat: that Covid-19 & vaccination are being used as a kind of Trojan Horse for norm-setting & norm-entrenchment of far-right ideologies in Aotearoa NZ". The Working Paper defines "misinformation" as being “false information that people didn’t create with the intent to hurt others” & "disinformation" as “false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organization, or even a company”.

But isn't this definition somewhat missing what the heart of the debate is actually about? Namely how does one work out what is "false information"? In the economics literature, the key issue is instead the huge difficulty in distinguishing "information" from "opinion". An assumption in this literature is that "the information contained in the 'facts' about any news event may not always be fully verifiable. Verification of information is central to the media. At the same time, full verifiability is the exception rather than the rule ... When a news item comprises information that is mostly non-verifiable, then consumers may care both about opinion and editorials, and a firm’s report will contain both these aspects - in which case the market resembles any differentiated product market (see the article below by two Harvard Business School Professors, Di Tella and Anand).

The above authors show how since most news contains non-verifiable elements, some outlets will "spin" to the right, whereas others will "spin" to the left, simply as a matter of business, to cater to their different audiences. Customers self-select into which news-outlet they prefer, based on which one is more in line with their own opinions and confirms their own biases! In the Kiwi context, what is "disinformation" to Stuff readers may not be to National Business Review readers. In the US context, right-wingers tend to view CNN as being a biased purveyor of "fake news", whereas left-wingers have the identical belief about Fox News. Di Tella & Anand note "observers frequently disagree on the direction of bias even by the same media outlet: for example, some argue that CNN has a liberal bent, whereas those on the left perceive it to be right-of-center".

Although Stuff News calls our times "the age of misinformation" that characterization is itself misinformation. It's been going on for thousands of years. Di Tella & Anand note, "The challenges confronted in verifying information about news events are described as early as the 5th century B.C., in Thucydides’ introduction to his account of the Peleponnesian War: “With regard to my factual reporting of events .. I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else heard of them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eyewitnesses have different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality from one side or the other, or else from imperfect memories.”

This account "alludes to the basic challenges in any task of nonfiction: How do you sift through rumor, gossip, failed memory, manipulative agendas & try to capture something as accurately as possible, subject to revision in light of new information & perspective? How do you overcome your own limits of perception, your own experience & come to an account more people will recognize as reliable? The difficulties posed in this task have resulted not only in journalists rejecting the term objectivity as an illusion, but in various legal opinions which declared objectivity impossible.”



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